In Imperial Russia a person of simple birth could be granted "personal nobility"(non-hereditary), by state service or even by some noble deeds out of it (traders got it this way).

The whole system of ranks was copied by Peter I at the beginning of the 18th century, as far as I know. The rank system set a range of ranks at which a person was granted personal nobility automatically. (English wiki article on the subject is very weak)

But what countries served as the source of the system? In what European countries (and where) did such "non-hereditary nobility" exist? What terms were used for it?

I am not talking about the difference of titled aristocracy ( with hereditary titles or not) and non-titled nobility, but about the border between the lower layer of nobility and simple people.

It seems, the Persönlicher Adel, mentioned by @nvoigt, is the most close term. But what was the first? And Germany was not a single state then. Where exactly that term appeared? Or was Peter I the author of that social invention?

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    @DenisdeBernardy Knighthood is a personal title. It was not hereditary, but if knighted person was not noble, he gets the full nobility. Even a prince had to be knighted, he didn't get the knighthood automatically. But be sure, the prince was noble before and after.
    – Gangnus
    Commented Aug 3, 2017 at 11:41
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    Knights were not the lower nobility. Every noble without title, who was not knighted, was below them. Knighthood is a special, additional title. I think, there is problem rather in translation than in location. Let us say, knighthood is something that is got by a strike by a sword of a senior and such things. All other titles are not, even if they are sometimes translated to English as "knight". Because of that, for example, feudal Moscow state had no knights. Let us not mix title with armored man riding a horse.
    – Gangnus
    Commented Aug 3, 2017 at 11:57
  • @DenisdeBernardy knights were not of the nobility, but held privileges similar to those grants to lower nobility in many places (unless they already held higher privileges because of other status, e.g. being of higher nobility). And those privileges were likely more a matter of courtesy rather than holding any force of law (though having some guys with lots of weapons riding into town would make anyone very courteous towards them no doubt).
    – jwenting
    Commented Aug 3, 2017 at 13:23
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    Technically the Holy Roman Emperor was an elected (for life) position. Of course only princes and archbishops got to vote, and in practice they tended to vote for the kids of the last emperor.
    – T.E.D.
    Commented Aug 3, 2017 at 15:49
  • @T.E.D. Yes, I think, he had nobility already :-). Or did they consider one of Fuggers as a pretendent? Hmm... I think, he had to be one of the empire voters himself?
    – Gangnus
    Commented Aug 3, 2017 at 15:56

4 Answers 4


It was in Italy that (initially) non hereditary titles of nobility were granted for military prowess. That's because these titles were not grounded in ownership of land.According to Wikipedia:

"Though they had been used rarely, titles of nobility had certainly existed before circa 1300, but these were usually military ranks and not hereditary."

This practice did not last long. Wikipedia continues:

"During the fourteenth century, nobiliary [sic!] titles became hereditary in most of Italy, usually transmitted by male primogeniture and almost invariably linked to land."

That is to say, this imbalance was redressed by giving land to the newly ennobled.

Germany had a similar concept going back as early as the turn of the first and second millennia, and it's possible that both that country and Italy inherited the idea from the Holy Roman Empire.

It is noteworthy that in Britain, one way to noble titles was through military success (Duke of Marlborough, Duke of Wellington), although these titles were hereditary.But as another poster pointed out, it was possible to become a "life peer" (by late in the second millenium.)

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    in no small part the English got their titles as part of being granted the land on which those titles rested in reward for service to the King. That's where the term "title" for the ownership of a piece of land comes from AFAIK.
    – jwenting
    Commented Aug 3, 2017 at 13:25
  • @jwenting:True. Which is what the Italians did beginning in the 14th century.
    – Tom Au
    Commented Aug 3, 2017 at 13:29
  • It is interesting, I didn't know that nobility had started to be hereditary so late in Western Europe.... but anyway, 14th century hardly was the inspiration for Peter I reforms.
    – Gangnus
    Commented Aug 3, 2017 at 13:46
  • @Gangnus: It wasn't "started" but rather "cemented" in the 14th century.
    – Tom Au
    Commented Aug 3, 2017 at 13:48

In the United Kingdom, you could become a life peer. This title could not be inherited, it was limited to the life of the holder.

In Germany, this concept was called Persönlicher Adel (personal nobility).

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    As for life peer, it is non-hereditary title. As knighthood is. And I am talking about non-hereditary nobility. As for Persoenlicher Aedel and AmtsAedel (from the same source), they are OK. But the question remains: Were these ranks example for Peter I or vice versa? When did they start to exist?
    – Gangnus
    Commented Aug 3, 2017 at 13:40
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    @Gangnus Wikipedia says that peers are members of the nobility, not just titled individuals. The great majority of life peerages have been created much more recently than Peter I, but the concept does go back to at least the 14th century. Commented Aug 3, 2017 at 16:13
  • @DavidRicherby Did becoming a life peer made a person noble? Was it used on simple people? Did cancelling life peer title remained the person being noble? Only three yes makes this a way to non-hereditary (but not temporary) nobility.
    – Gangnus
    Commented Aug 3, 2017 at 16:17
  • @DavidRicherby I you would develop that Persönlicher Adel part, including the time where it was used, it could be the answer.
    – Gangnus
    Commented Aug 3, 2017 at 16:18
  • @Gangnus Life peers seem to be considered part of the nobility but beyond that, this isn't something I know much about at all. I've no idea if any of these things could have influenced Peter the Great, for example. (Though British life peerages seem to have been a very rarely used technicality until the 1950s so my guess would be that they weren't an influence.) Commented Aug 3, 2017 at 16:25

The President of France and the Bishop of Urgell are, ex officio, the co-princes of Andorra. These are non-hereditary and, as far as I can see, considered to be a part of the nobility.

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    Good catch, but probably not the example on which Peter the Great modeled his system of ranks.
    – MCW
    Commented Aug 3, 2017 at 15:14
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    The President of France after finishing is not more a co-prince. So, this is yet another variant of nobility, even lesser one: temporary nobility! Really excellent!
    – Gangnus
    Commented Aug 3, 2017 at 15:58

If I'm not mistaken, most post-Roman states of Europe were built upon non-hereditary nobility, and it wasn't until later on as those nations developed that a hereditary nobility developed.

On elected rulers, France had an electoral kingship from at least Carolinian times until well into the Capetian age, and only became hereditary because of the tradition of appointing the king's heir as sub-king. The HRE example of electors choosing a monarch has already been mentioned.

In England, earls were appointed by the kings in the Anglo-Saxon age, and this tradition continued under the Norman kings. It was typical but not at all necessary that the heir of an earl would be the next appointed. As for barons (the king's tenants-in-chief), their tenure was inheritable, but a summons to the king's council (and later parliament) wasn't guaranteed. It wasn't until near the end of the Plantagenet era that inheritable peerages (or peerage as we know it) took hold and someone could sit in parliament by the right of their father having done so.

  • Excellent, thank you for reminding that fact. But, excuse me, I asked about the late feudalism - early capitalism times. The personal nobility was one of attempts to create some social lifts in otherward very rigid society. Even in England in 1860-ties, according to Herzen's memories, the difference between being noble and not being it, was very significant.
    – Gangnus
    Commented Aug 4, 2017 at 8:03
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    Your edit for "late feudalism" came after I posted my answer, not before. I answered your question as it was at the time I wrote my answer. Commented Aug 4, 2017 at 15:41

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